She inspired a novel and a movie starring Robert Redford when in 1949, she lured a US major league baseball player she had never met into a hotel room with a cryptic note and shot him, nearly killing him. Yet, after the headlines faded, Ruth Ann Steinhagen did something else just as surprising: She disappeared into obscurity, living a quiet life unnoticed in Chicago until more than a half century later, when news broke that she had died three months earlier.
The Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office on Friday confirmed that Steinhagen passed away of natural causes on Dec. 29 last year, at the age of 83. First reported by the Chicago Tribune last week, her identity was a surprise even to the morgue employees who knew about the 1984 movie The Natural.
“She chose to live in the shadows and she did a good job of it,” John Theodore, author of a 2002 non-fiction book about the crime, wrote in an e-mail on Sunday.
The story, with its elements of obsession, mystery, insanity and a baseball star, made it part of Chicago’s colorful crime history and rich baseball lore.
The story began with what appeared to be just another young woman’s crush on Eddie Waitkus, the Chicago Cubs’ handsome first baseman. So complete was this crush that the teenager set a place for Waitkus at the family dinner table, turned her bedroom into a shrine to him and put his photograph under her pillow.
After the 1948 season, Waitkus was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies — a fateful turn.
“When he went to the Phillies, that’s when she decided to kill him,” Theodore said in an interview.
Steinhagen had her chance the next season, when the Phillies came to play the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. She checked into the Edgewater Beach Hotel where he was staying and invited him to her room.
“We’re not acquainted, but I have something of importance to speak to you about,” she wrote in a note to him after a game at Wrigley Field on June 14, 1949.
It worked. Waitkus arrived at her room. After he sat down, Steinhagen walked to a closet, said: “I have a surprise for you,” then turned with the rifle she had hidden there and shot him in the chest.
Theodore wrote that she then knelt by his side and held his hand.
A judge determined she was insane and committed her to a mental hospital. She was released three years later, after doctors determined she had regained her sanity.
Details about the rest of her life are sketchy. She lived with her sister in a house just a few kilometers from the hotel where she shot Waitkus.
Waitkus decided not to press charges in 1952 when Steinhagen was deemed sane. The trial would have likely made banner headlines so Watikus’ decision almost certainly assisted Steinhagen’s disappearance into obscurity.